Was it as good as it seemed?
Man, the Vectrex. I very clearly remember my brother and I valiantly lobbying for a Vectrex. It was the world’s first totally self-contained “portable” gaming system with full vector graphics (exactly the same graphics style as in Tempest, Star Wars, Asteroids etc) all in a small portable tabletop machine.
WOW. You could truly have an arcade quality machine in your home for just over $200 bucks.
Well, as you could imagine during the video game heyday there were a lot of cool home systems that we already owned such as the Atari, Merlin and even a Simon…..so the Vectrex was never to be in my household.
Well here we are over 20 years later and I finally picked one up. It turns out that the Vectrex is one of the more expensive classic console collectibles out there. Go ahead, check it out on EBay.
As you can see, the Vectrex is a hot property, but why?
To tell you the truth the simple fact it that it’s cool. It’s literally arcade perfect (try Star Castle. It’s a PERFECT port!). There’s also simply something appealing about a Vector monitor. Those razor sharp lines, the “blurring” of your fast moving ship….you just can’t reproduce that on a VGA or standard arcade monitor.
It turns out that the Vectrex has a rabid fan following and has a very active homebrew community.
A LITTLE HISTORY
General Consumer Electronics (GCE) released the Vectrex for $199. back around 1982. The product itself was created after a major purchase of thousands of surplus CRTs with no specific purpose in mind at the time of the purchase other than…these are cheap!
The machine itself was initially engineered/created at a company called Smith Engineering and later licensed and renamed by a company known as GCE.
The Vectrex was originally known (internally at Smith) as the “Mini Arcade”but as the development matured it became officially known as the Vectrex.
Unlike any system before or after it, it was the first truly portable and self-contained arcade gaming system with fully realized black and white vector graphics.
Ah, there was the rub.
It was all black and white and at the time full color video games for both the arcade and in home use started to feature rich full color (Galaxian anyone?).
The Vectrex dealt with that problem as Atari and others did with their early arcade machine…colored overlays (remember Circus or the early Taito Space Invaders?).
The Vectrex overlays served a few valuable functions; they added some color and made the game screen seem “customized” for various games (ex. Score, controller functions etc)….and most importantly it cut down on the blinding brightness of the shape vector graphics (the brightness it adjustable on the machine, but the overlays really help a lot).THE CONTROLLER
The controller was fully integrated into the housing unit itself with a tab that held it into the face of the unit with friction/a small slot on the controller and a short phone cord style wire attaching it to the unit. The controller itself was rectangular with a small joystick and 4 buttons. The stick itself is notorious for breaking (over the years) so if you ever manage to pick one up be sure to test the joystick! There is a great alternative homebrew using a Sega 6 button controller to replace the originally stick, but more on that later.
The unit came with a fun Asteroids style clone game called Mine Storm, that’s actually really good, built right into the unit that boots right up upon turning the unit on.
CGE was busy shopping the unit around back around 1981 and quickly got the attention of Milton Bradley who was looking to jump on the home console gaming bandwagon. So what did Milton Bradley do to acquire the unit? They bought CGE.
Within about a year and a half the unit was in wide distribution in the US, Europe and Japan…..but remember this was now around 1983.1983 THE CRASH.
It’s well documented that 1983 was the beginning year of the big arcade and home gaming crash. Within months of acquiring CGE and the distribution of the Vectrex Milton Bradley shut down CGE and began the deep discounting on the remaining product that was produced. The price dropped from $199. to $150. to $99 all within a few months.
Very soon after that they licensed the product directly back to the original design company Smith Engineering and cut their losses on the Vectrex.
The remain stock of the monitors and technology ended up in other products over the next couple of years but none of them were as well thought out or packaged as well as the Vectrex itself.
Apparently sometime at the end of the 80’s there was talk of a Vectrex handheld but the idea was scrapped. No one would want a handheld black and white gaming system right? Wrong. Did you forget about Nintendo’s gameboy? Oh well, I guess we’ll never know if it would have been a success or not but few have been able to successfully invade Nintendo’s strangle hold on the handheld area anyway (even to today despite the PSP!).THE ACCESSORIES
Due to the system’s really short life span there weren’t too many “marquee” games. There are some really excellent Vectrex exclusives including the built in Minestorm as noted and a few arcade conversions that were quite good such as Pole Position (yes, it actually looks and plays really well!); and Scramble.LIST OF GAMES (FROM WIKIPEDIA)
The Roms and New Games
Smith Engineering graciously released all of the roms and all related Vectrex into the “wild” a few years ago. All the materials, packaging, games etc. may be freely copied and distributed.
…which brings us to the homebrew scene that is flourshing around this little “Mini Arcade”.
One of the top contributors is John Donzilla of Classic Game Creations. He’s been a major contributor to the homebrew Vectrex scene in addition to notable additions to the ColecoVision and Odyssey2 homebrew libraries.
John’s first game was back in 1996 and he’s still creating new ones such as his 2006 Space Frenzy just release in March.
I was fortunate enough to convince John to take out some time to talk with me about his home brewing activities I hope you enjoy the interview:
John, tell me a bit about you. What do you do for your “day” job; what hobbies do you have besides programming etc. Anything you think the readers may wish to know would be appropriate. For example, do you like arcade games? Do you own any (full sized machines)?
JOHN: “I work as a tech manager
for a family fun center, servicing games,
Did you ever own the consoles you program for as a kid growing up?
JOHN: “Nope, I started out with
a Commodore Vic-20 computer. I didn't
What was the first game you programmed?
JOHN: “I started out writing
games for TRS-80's when I was in high school.
What equipment do you use to program your games?
JOHN: “My trusty home computer,
a text editor, a free 6809 assembler
What are some of the programming challenges you face for these old consoles?
JOHN: “Limited memory, slow CPU speed.”
How long does it take to build/package one of your carts for sale?
JOHN: “Half hour or so. I consider myself pretty thorough.”
What’s your best selling game?
John you obviously love the old consoles, but what about the Coleco. Odyssey2 and Vectrex in particular interested you?
JOHN: “Coleco - I was never a
big fan of the system, but I needed a
Odyssey 2 - I thought it would be nice if the system
had at least
Vectrex - The system always fascinated me. I always
wanted to write
When/how did this become a “commercial” venture for you?
JOHN: “It's not a commercial
venture. If I was in this for money I'd
What makes a great game? What do you try to think of when you design your games?
JOHN: “I like short, intense
games. I don't have the time to sit and play a
What’s your favorite console game of all time? Arcade game? And why?
JOHN: “Bally Astrocade - it was the first programmable game console.
Atari Starship 1 - The first arcade game I ever played.
I picked one
What do you think of modern console gaming?
JOHN: “The games all look and play the same. I'm sure the same thing is said about my generation's game systems though.”
Thanks for your time John!
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this little history lesson and track down a Vectrex on Ebay or at a garagesale soon!
John has a few great brand new titles that you’re sure to enjoy and they are available for sale on his website. Even better, is the fact that he has all of the game roms (for his new programs) available for free on his website for a “try before you buy” on the Vectrex Emulator program (links below to that and other Vectrex goodies).
This is a great way to give his games a shot before you make the purchase. He also has his Coleco and Odyessy roms as well on his site for play on those respective emulators as well.
To visit John’s website check it out here—and
tell him RetroBlast sent you!—
RESOURCES- controllers, multicarts, overlays and much more!
As I mentioned earlier in this article there are “new” replacement controllers for the Vectrex that are hacks of existing “modern” controllers.
You can reach out to John and pick up a Sega Genesis controller (new) modified to work with a vectrex. You can find them here-- Classic Game Creations
Want a full set of games on a “cartridge”? I came across this great German based site that has cartridges that you can play directly in your commercial Vectrex. You switch games via “jumpers” the same way you would adjust a Hard Drive for your PC. It’s a bit cumbersome but it works great! Retro-Gaming-Solutions
SEAN KELLY MULTICART
There’s also the “famous” Sean Kelly Multicart. It’s much easier to use, but they are hard to find. If you do score one on Ebay you can expect to spend over $200.00!
There are reproductions out there and they seem to vary in quality. I’m happy with the full set that I purchased (see photos); but you can see the differences between a real overlay and the repro. In the photo of the Star Trek overlay, the real one is on the left and the repro. is on the right.
You’ll notice the colors aren’t are rich and that the overall look isn’t as “professional” but they work great and a full set of overlays for a reasonable cost are pretty hard to find. As of this writing, the only known vendor to sell complete sets does not appear to be in business any longer. Your best option is to keep an eye on Ebay.
VECTREX INFORMATION-VECTREX NEWS VECTREX GAME REVIEW SITE
About The Author
Mitch Gerson, 37 years old, resides in Manhattan with his wife of 5 years. He discovered the magic of MAME™ around November of 2002. Two years and two complete arcade cabinets (one stand up and one cocktail, both built by the author) later he's still going strong coming up with various custom peripherals for his arcade cabs with no end in sight. His, home arcade has now expanded into Pachislo machines and now includes Metal Slug, Jet Set Radio and Tekken as his favorite new toys.
Do you have a comment or question? Click here to send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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